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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #45 (November 8, 2005), page 14.
Sneaking dreams across borders
When She Sleeps
By Leora Krygier
Toby Press, 2004
Hardcover, 205 pages, $19.95
By Josephine Bridges
When She Sleeps is a mysterious and mystical novel, rich in language, geography, and character development. Leora Krygierís prose is deeply poetic, and that poetry winds beneath the plotline like the Los Angeles River, seeps into it like Southern California drizzle, lifts and drops it like Pacific Ocean swells. Here dreams can be stolen, pulled in like radio signals, or kept safe by a stranger on another continent.
This is primarily the story of two daughters ó one from Vietnam, the other from California ó who share a father, and the girlsí two mothers. Given that daughters Mai and Lucy and mothers Linh and Evelyn all have him in common, Aaron is an ironically minor character, and a fairly ineffectual one. A doctor specializing in sleep disorders, he has fathered two girls who canít sleep.
Set in various parts of Vietnam, Los Angeles, and Paris, the narrative of When She Sleeps explores the deep connections between people who have never met. Geography is a link: Evelyn goes to Los Angeles International airport to look for the gloves she lost on her honeymoon in Paris 15 years earlier, and Linh haunts the Paris Metro. Mai wonders, "If everything fell with the pull of gravity, why didnít the moon fall too?" The same moon keeps Lucy awake: "I could feel it pulling me." Subways, towers, mountains, rain, rivers, oceans, and the dolphins swimming in these oceans all weave in and out of consciousness, memory, and dream.
The narrative is temporally as well as geographically fluid. Grounded in 1977, it revisits Vietnam both during the war and earlier. Mai doesnít trust the portrait her maternal grandmother paints of her privileged years before the war: "She seemed too practiced, at ease with our deprivation. She was too familiar with wheedling, too used to the taste of a poor manís tea, to have ever been a rich manís wife." Even the Second World War haunts the edges of When She Sleeps, through the recollections of the girlsí grandmother, Ruth, a Holocaust survivor whom Lucy describes as "a tap, dripping old complaints." When such doubling is deftly crafted, and Leora Krygier is a master, it is one of the joys of reading.
Minor characters are also beautifully realized here, and that is why the reader finishes this novel with the sense not just of having read a book, but of having lived more than one brief, unfamiliar life. Lucy compares her grandfather to "the old man down the street whoíd go out to his mailbox hours after the mailman had come and gone, still hoping for a letter."
Shopping at K-Mart, Mai watches as a little girl pulls out "a plastic baby Jesus from inside the lowest shelf. Leftover from Christmas, it had been tucked away, forgotten, in the clearance section." The old man, the little girl, and baby Jesus appear nowhere else in the narrative, but they all deeply enrich it.
As if all this werenít plenty, When She Sleeps is filled with reflections on language, which Linh, a linguist, calls "the train fare for the journeys in our dreams." Linh eventually gives up speaking, but not before she has told her daughter, "There are no punctuation marks in Chinese. But in English, thereís the apostrophe. It shows belonging, Mai. And the parentheses, they are curved to enclose." Later, Mai muses on the derivation of Lucyís name and how this fits her half-sisterís interest in photography.
Leora Krygier has the wisdom and the grace to let mysteries be. There must have been something in the bottom drawer that Aaron has always kept locked, but when he leaves to visit Vietnam, Lucy finds the drawer empty. And whatever lies behind Evelynís strange reassurance, "I think Iíve forgiven the freeway," remains between mother and daughter. Life is like that. When She Sleeps is like both life and dream.